Chemicals Newly Disclosed As Risky Are In What We Eat…But What?

June 21, 2011 1:45 a.m.

Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency declassified the identities of 150 chemicals that appeared in toxicity reports, some as long as 30 years ago.

Many were found to pose “substantial risk” to consumers or the environment, and include ingredients found in everything from air fresheners to chemicals used in the cleanup of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last year.The names of the chemicals were previously redacted as Confidential Business Information (CBI) under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. Although the TSCA required that all chemical data withheld as CBI be justified by a “detailed written explanation,” the problem lay in the sheer volume of such filings; claims were left unchallenged, and the chemical identities they redacted were left unknown.

The names of 17,000 of the 84,000 chemicals on the agency’s toxic substances inventory are not publicly available, according to the NYT Green Blog.

Last year, the EPA announced the launch of a long process to review confidentiality claims on chemical identities that turned up in health and safety studies. Any information that “does not explicitly contain process information or reveal portions of a mixture” would be declassified after a formal request was made to the manufacturing company.

“A health and safety study with the chemical name kept secret is completely useless to the public,” Steve Owens, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said in a press release.

The long-term push towards transparency in the chemical industry arrives in tandem with moves by states like Texas to officially require full disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, and the government’s long-delayed official recognition this month of formaldehyde and styrene as carcinogens.

The reports, however, are still riddled with redactions. They all include an indication of chemical makeup, but many only provide the Chemical Abstracts Service number, which must be cross-checked against the companion database to produce a chemical name, and is not of much use to average consumers. The commercial name of the product is still redacted, and there is no indication of what it is used for. Some of the older reports are bad photocopies, where paragraphs are washed out to the point of being illegible. The name of the manufacturer is often missing completely.

TPM dipped into the newly public files, where 150 chemical names are contained in 104 lab studies.

Among them is in an unnamed product from the Givaudan Fragrances Corporation, which manufactures scents and flavors to be added to everything from shampoos to chicken. The chemical at hand caused “diffuse testicular degeneration,” “reduced testicular size” and and 95.6% rate of “sperm with abnormal morphology” in the lab animals tested. While the identity of the actual product linked to the chemical is not provided, the chemical appears in the Handbook of Food and Color Additives, suggesting its use in things we might eat.

DuPont released the chemical components for a product titled “surfactant mixture,” flagged by a 1991 study that found it caused significant fetal weight loss in animals. Surfactants cover a wide range of detergents and propellants, and the hydrocarbon chemicals subject in this particular study are typically used for applying herbicides. Though no commercial name was provided in the report, DuPont sells a “Sure-Mix” hydrocarbon surfactant as a propellant in agricultural herbicides, whose description gives no chemical information.

Another report looks at the vaguely titled product “GST,” which contains thia alkanethiol, which can be used to create artificial flavors in meat. The submitted study from 2010 is heavy with technical language, but the letter requesting declassification notes that the EPA “intends to place the chemical substance subject to the premanufacture notice and notice of substantial risk.”

While the move towards public disclosure is a success for health and environmental advocates, the most marked aspect of these files is perhaps their user-unfriendliness. Medical professionals and savvy readers who take the time to dissect the files can take advantage of the new information, where it counts most. The vast majority of the chemical reports, however, provide little room for consumer comprehension, and the tangle of code numbers and technical classifications keeps the level of transparency for the wider public nearly as muddled as before.

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